Editor’s Note: Tune in Sunday, January 2, at 9 p.m. ET for the premiere of CNN’s new film “Carole King & James Taylor: Just Call Out My Name.” The two musical legends perform their greatest hits.
Legendary singer-songwriters James Taylor and Carole King, friends and collaborators for more than 50 years, are two of the most successful musicians in American musical history.
Taylor’s confessional lyrics, soulful voice and delicate guitar-playing resonated with audiences. King started as a songwriter, making a long list of chart-toppers for other artists that became instant classics. She broke out with her own style in her 1971 album “Tapestry,” which became a worldwide success, selling more than 25 million copies.
Here are some of the duo’s biggest hits and the story behind them.
“You’ve Got a Friend”
King composed “You’ve Got a Friend,” which she said was a song that quickly wrote itself. Taylor heard it the next day and knew the tune was going to be a hit.
“As soon as I heard it, I was just like, man, that’s just it. That’s a great, great song,” recalled Taylor.
At the time, King was recording her own album, but she allowed Taylor to have the first crack at it and he released the song as a single on his own album.
“It was extraordinary,” Taylor said of King’s generous act of friendship.
“Hearing [Taylor’s] rendition of it for the first time, it was like oh my God. It’s perfect,” said King.
Taylor recorded it and won a Grammy for best pop vocal performance in 1971. The song shot to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 100.
During their Troubadour Reunion Tour in 2010, Taylor and King played the song together, King on the piano and Taylor on the guitar.
“After I play ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ tears are streaming down their faces, and then for that 5 minutes and 12 seconds everybody is getting along,” said King.
“Carolina in My Mind”
While on a trip to an island off the coast of Spain, Taylor was missing his home state of North Carolina. At the time, Taylor was recording his debut album in London on The Beatles’ record label, Apple Records.
“I was homesick at the time. I didn’t have a home, but that doesn’t keep you from being homesick sometimes,” he joked in 1970.
Taylor wrote the tune about southern sunshine, moonshine and old friends. He also mentions a woman named Karen, who was with him on the trip to the Spanish island of Formentera.
After the song was written, the challenge was getting the song recorded.
“The Beatles took a break. The studio that they were using … when they weren’t there, I was there. I would sort of scamper in there and put down a few of my little tracks and clear out before they came back,” Taylor told Seth Meyers in 2020.
Taylor knew at that moment that “Carolina in My Mind” was going to be a hit.
“I knew it was extraordinary and exceptional,” Taylor said. The song was on his 1968 album, “James Taylor.”
Taylor told Parade, it’s his favorite song to play. “My audience responds well to it, and because it wears well, I like ‘Carolina In My Mind.’ I play it almost every time I perform, and I haven’t tired of it,” said Taylor.
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
At the beginning of her career in the early 1960s, King composed melodies on the piano and her songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, wrote the lyrics. They produced some of the catchiest tunes of the era that were recorded by popular performers, including the Drifters (“Up on the Roof”), the Chiffons (“One Fine Day”), the Monkees (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”), the Beatles (“Chains”) and Linda Ronstadt (“Oh No, Not My Baby”).
One of these breakout hits was “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” King and Goffin created the song and turned it over to powerhouse Aretha Franklin.
King says she and Goffin had been walking down the street in New York one day when music producer Jerry Wexler, a top executive at Atlantic Records, pulled up in a limo, rolled down the window and said, “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha. How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman?’” The songwriting couple, who were also married at the time, went home that night and came up with the music and lyrics.
What does it mean to be a “natural woman?” The song was written as a thank-you of sorts from a grateful woman to her lover, but Aretha turned it into a broader statement about the power of a confident woman who is at peace with herself. The song states, “Before the day I met you, life was so unkind. But your love was the key to my peace of mind.”
Franklin’s version of this song climbed to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967.
King made the song her own by creating her own rendition for her solo album “Tapestry.” Her stripped-down version has a slower tempo with a more prominent piano component.
It also was the inspiration for the title of her memoir, “Carole King: Natural Woman,” which was published in 2012.
“Fire and Rain”
Taylor wrote “Fire and Rain” in 1968 about his experience coping with a drug addiction and the death of his childhood friend, Suzanne Schnerr, who died by suicide. He was 20 at the time.
When Schnerr died, Taylor was recording his debut album in London. His friends kept the news from him because they didn’t want to distract him from his big break or make him sad, Taylor told NPR in 2000. He said he only learned of her death months later
The song, while dealing witha heavy subject, was quick and simple to write for Taylor, and he said the song was almost therapeutic to produce.
“That song relieved a lot of sort of tension. There were things that I needed to get rid of or at least get out of me or get in front of me or at least have some other relationship than feeling them internally, either by telling somebody else or by just putting them out in a form in front of me so that I could say, `There they are,’ you know, externalizing it somehow. And that part was hard, having the feelings that needed to be expressed in that way. But it was actually a relief, like a laugh or a sigh,” Taylor told NPR.
The song states: “I have seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days I thought they’d never end. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend. But I always thought I’d see you again.”
The line about “not finding a friend” really stood out to King. She said, “You’ve Got a Friend” was a response to “Fire and Rain.” Rolling Stone reported that King told him, “Here’s your friend,” after she wrote her song about friendship.
The personal and emotional lyrics connected with the audience and became Taylor’s first big hit when it was released/ It rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“I love playing it for people. And almost always, when I play that song, I get back to the place, to the feeling I had when I wrote it. That’s rare, after playing something maybe 1,500 times,” Taylor told American Songwriter.
“Beautiful” is an upbeat soft rock song that shares a simple message: love yourself and show the world your love.
King said the song came through her spontaneously. She realized while riding the New York subway that the way she perceived others reflected how she herself felt.
The chorus states, “You’ve got to get up every morning /With a smile in your face / And show the world all the love in your heart /Then people gonna treat you better / You’re gonna find, yes you will /That you’re beautiful as you feel.”
In 2012’s “A Natural Woman: A Memoir,” King wrote about the song’s quirk.
“I was unaware of a professional detail about the song until a fellow songwriter pointed it out: there are no rhymes in the chorus – unless you count stretching “will” into “weel” as a false rhyme for “feel.”
She added, “I still believe everyone is beautiful in some way, and by seeing the beautiful in others, we make ourselves more beautiful.”
“Beautiful” was the fifth song on her album “Tapestry.” It was later covered by other artists, including Barbara Streisand.
The song was the inspiration for the name of the Broadway musical about her life, called “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which ran on Broadway from 2014 to 2019. It chronicles King’s beginnings as a singer-songwriter and her professional and personal partnership with Goffin.
The show received seven Tony nominations and won two.